Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:12 am
Unlike Balmoral, which is a private home, the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh is the Monarch’s official residence in Scotland. And parts of it are open to the public. So, assuming you don’t get to visit palaces too often, you should pop in when you’re next in town. It is situated at the eastern end of the Royal Mile, which stretches from the unmissable and iconic Edinburgh Castle in the west, along Castle Hill, Lawnmarket and Canongate. Unfortunately, the Scottish Parliament Building – high on my personal list of the ugliest buildings in the world – is directly opposite.
I like to think of Holyroodhouse as an accidental palace. It began life as an Augustinian abbey founded by King David I in 1128. The name ‘holyrood’ is derived from Old English (Saxon) halig rod, which means ‘holy cross’. There seem to be three possible explanations as to why that particular label was applied to this place. In no particular order, these are:
- King David was hunting nearby, saw a stag with a glowing cross between its antlers and he decided to build an abbey on the spot;
- King David was hunting nearby, was thrown from his horse and speared in the thigh by a ‘muckle white hart’ (stag). A crucifix (holy rood) miraculously appeared in his hands while he was wrestling with the stag. He survived. Accordingly, he decided to build an abbey close to the scene of his encounter.
- King David’s mum, St Margaret of Scotland (who was confusingly of royal English descent), brought a fragment of the True Cross to Scotland and the King founded the abbey in its (or her) honour.
Any one of the above works for me; I will leave it to you to decide one you prefer.
The abbey contained royal chambers from an early date and it was one of the Scottish monarch’s residences by the time James II of Scotland was born there in 1430: indeed, he was crowned, married and buried in the abbey. But it was King James IV (1488-1513) who decided to create a palace there – despite also investing in a perfectly good one 20 miles down the road at Linlithgow, as well as already having an established stronghold in Edinburgh. However, a base was needed in the capital and Holyrood had more comfort potential than the austere and cold castle at the top of the hill. James IV’s work was continued by James V (1513-42) who wanted something impressive for himself and his nice French wife, Mary of Guise. The Stewart kings effectively created the palace around the cloisters of the abbey.
The English looted Holyrood twice, in 1544 and 1547, as part of the ‘rough wooing’, when Henry VIII of England was attempting to force a betrothal between his son, Edward, and the infant Scottish princess, Mary – future Queen of Scots and daughter of James V and Mary of Guise. This would have joined the two crowns sooner than eventually happened. For a while from 1561, Mary, Queen of Scots made Holyrood her home; she married her second and third husbands, Henry Stewart (Lord Darnley) and James Hepburn (4th Earl of Bothwell) there in 1565 and 1567 respectively.
Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, largely abandoned Holyrood after additionally becoming James I of England – though he did commission some repairs. During the Civil War, when James’s son Charles I fought the English Parliament, Cromwell’s troops were billeted there and the palace was badly damaged by fire – whether accidental or otherwise, no one knows. It received an extensive makeover during the reign of King Charles II – and it is to this that it owes its present largely baroque look, with a twist of Scottish baronial thrown in. The massive north-west tower, constructed by James V (the oldest surviving part of the palace) is sort of balanced by a similar, but 17th century, tower on the other side.
King James VII (James II of England), Charles’ brother, was not long on the throne and, after that, it seems British monarchs lost interest in Holyrood for awhile. James’ grandson, Bonnie Prince Charlie, set up court there in 1745, during the brief Jacobean rebellion. Some renovation work was undertaken for the visit of George IV to Scotland in 1822. However, Queen Victoria was extremely fond of Scotland, liked to stay at Holyroodhouse and more work was carried out during her reign. The elaborate fountain in the courtyard is Victorian – it is based on the elaborate James V fountain at Linlithgow Palace. Holyroodhouse was also a favourite of George V and it became the monarch’s official residence in Scotland during the 1920s.
In modern times, Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II stayed at Holyroodhouse every summer, during ‘Holyrood week’, when she undertook a series of official engagements, investitures and audiences, as well as hosting a garden party for 8,000 guests. The Queen’s annual arrival was marked by a ceremony during which she was offered the Great Key of Edinburgh, and a pledge of loyalty; after accepting the key, it was duly handed back to the City for safekeeping. King Charles III and Camilla, the Queen Consort, took part in the same ceremony of the keys for the first time at Holyrood, on 12 September 2022, while the late Queen lay in rest in the Palace throne room following her death at Balmoral on 8 September. Later that day, 12 September, the Queen’s coffin was taken in procession to St Giles’ Cathedral, where it lay in rest in public before being flown to London on 13 September to lay in state ahead of her funeral on 19 September.
The parts of Holyroodhouse Palace open to the public (except when the Monarch is in residence) take in the state apartments, which include the throne room and great gallery – hung with portraits of the real and legendary kings of Scotland. All is amazing, though I may say that a personal highlight was visiting Mary, Queen of Scots’ apartments – including her bedchamber and supper room. To be in the home of this remarkable historical figure is one thing; but because the rooms contain many original furnishings, not least a most wonderful wood-panelled ceiling, it feels almost as though she has just stepped outside for a minute. It was here, in the supper room, that the brutal murder of her Italian secretary, David Rizzio (or Riccio), took place. Mary’s marriage to her cousin, Lord Darnley, was not going at all well. To be frank, the man sounds as though he was an objectionable ass. Rizzio, on the other hand, was apparently charming and good company. Unfortunately, he was disliked by many Scottish nobles, possibly because he had committed the crime of being a foreigner, was a Catholic (as was the Queen) – and had more influence than they thought he should. Darnley was persuaded to do away with Rizzio, in return for which he would receive support for his claim to be king (rather than merely King consort). He may even have thought that the Italian was having an affair with his wife. On the evening of 9 March 1566, Darnley and a group of cronies burst into the supper room where the pregnant Mary was entertaining Rizzio and some other friends. Rizzio, vainly trying to cling to Mary’s skirts, was dragged, sobbing, next door where he was stabbed fifty six times.
The remaining ruins of the abbey, including the royal burial vault, are still attached to the palace. By the late 16th century, only the nave of the abbey church remained – the remainder had either been incorporated within the palace, or demolished; it was finally ransacked by a Protestant mob in 1688 and the roof collapsed in 1768.
With nine centuries of turbulent history, you would expect Holyrood to have its ghosts. Allegedly, unexplained sounds have been heard in the old tower and a ghostly figure has been seen – is this Darnley (who himself met a gruesome and unexplained end a year after Rizzio’s murder), or Rizzio? Intriguingly, a rust-coloured stain on the floorboards – said to be Rizzio’s blood – keeps reappearing, no matter how often it is removed. Less well known, but in many ways sadder and more terrifying, is Bald Agnes, who apparently wanders naked through the palace and grounds. This is said to be the spiritual form of Agnes Sampson, accused of witchcraft, stripped and hideously tortured, and then garrotted and burned in 1592.
Once you’ve got over that, you can retire to the Café at the Palace for a well-deserved cuppa and a sticky bun. When the ABAB team visited some years ago, we reasoned this was probably the closest we would get to having tea with the Queen, which proved to be correct. And it was very good, thank you, Ma’am. Suitably refreshed, you then might be brave enough to face the Palace Shop. I’m not a huge fan of gift shops – though of course I’m always happy to have a browse and offer helpful advice to the shop assistants as I go. Nevertheless, Royal Gift Shops elevate tea towels, post cards, mugs and such to a marginally higher level than you find anywhere else. You can select from a bewildering array of suitably monogrammed regal cushions, tea-cosies, throws, crockery, jewellery, bubbly, books – in fact – here’s the website of the Royal Collection Shop, so you can check it out for yourself. I couldn’t help wondering whether Her Majesty personally approved of all this stuff; I suppose she had to. With a new king, all those monogrammed items will have to be changed.
The Palace of Holyroodhouse is managed by the Royal Collection Trust, a department of the Royal Household. You must check opening times before you make a special trip – visit the website of the Royal Collection Trust. Incidentally, photography is not allowed inside which, as this is effectively a private residence and I am a loyal subject with no wish to be entertained at my own expense in the nastier parts of the Tower of London, I think is fair enough in this instance.